A Right To The World?

From hundreds of thousands of Rohingya seeking shelter in Bangladesh to Australia’s brutal offshore detention of people whose arrival it seeks to block, there is no shortage of recent signs of a global refugee crisis.

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of forcibly displaced persons—a category that includes refugees, asylum-seekers, and those displaced within their countries—was a record 65.6 million people worldwide in 2016. Of these, 22 million are officially categorized as refugees—people fleeing political persecution or physical violence—the highest figure in the agency’s history. Nonetheless, reports the UN agency, “the rate at which solutions are being found for refugees and internally displaced people has been on a falling trend since the end of the Cold War, leaving a growing number in limbo”


In addition to the officially recognized “growing number in limbo,” there are many millions of illegalized migrants, typically composed of the global poor and dispossessed. These are individuals living in the shadows of countries that do not welcome them or imprisoned for the “crime” of working and residing in or trying to enter a country without authorization. As manifested by the seemingly endless death toll of migrants in the Mediterranean, thousands of them die each year in trying to reach their destinations.

These numbers have only grown in recent years, as have nation-state efforts to repel unwanted people “on the move” who seek to cross their borders. In a recent article, I explore this mismatch—between increasing demand for a right to migrate (presumably to a place that offers far better life circumstances than the place of flight) and dramatic growth in apparatuses of national exclusion. I conclude that the problem is structural, not merely incidental. The outcome is embedded in the planet’s political geographical organization—that of nation-states—and in the very internationalist architecture that is supposed to remedy it. I assert that this can only be remedied by an expansion of rights, via what I call a right to the world.

The Struggle For Human Rights

The promise of human rights suggests aspirations of a world-changing nature. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights . . .  and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood [sic].” Meanwhile, according to Article 28, “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.”

In practice, however, human rights are tightly tied to national citizenship and to particular nationalized territories. For those who reside in nationalized spaces of great insecurity and deprivation, migration is often the only way to access the resources needed to realize their human rights. In this regard, the denial of such mobility is effectively a denial of human rights.


This denial is enshrined in the UDHR: while all have a right to exit any country, there is no corresponding right of entry (except to the country where one is a citizen). In the case of the very definition of refugees—and thus those who have a right to international protection—it excludes those fleeing deprivation, insecurity, and poverty of every day, “normal” sort in terms of reigning political-economic and environmental conditions within their home country. Such people are mere “migrants.” This speaks to how human rights have become, in the words of historian Samuel Moyn, “bound up with the power of the powerful”—especially countries whose populations consume a grossly disproportionate share of the planet’s resources.

Correcting this necessitates an expansion of rights so that they meet the needs of the globally disadvantaged. A right to the world would allow for freedom of mobility across global space and a just, sustainable share of the planet’s resources for all—thus increasing people’s ability to stay in their homelands. It is a right which those fleeing insecurity of various sorts and knocking on the proverbial doors of territories of privilege are both demonstrating the need for and are already claiming.

In a world of growing inequality, great violence, and increasing ecological instability, migration by those living on the margins of wellbeing is only likely to grow. So, too, (at least as suggested by present trends) is the likelihood that relatively wealthy countries will increase their efforts to wall themselves off from the global majority.

A right to the world offers the possibility of a different outcome. To the extent that people organize to realize the right, it will help to bring about the very world they seek.

The study, The Right to the World was recently published in the journal Antipode.




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